The Lakes Connection 555

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One of the new Enviro400 MMCs leaves Windermere for Keswick. DAVID BARROW
One of the new Enviro400 MMCs leaves Windermere for Keswick. DAVID BARROW

Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire have invested £2.5m on new buses on this high-profile route, the second time in less than five years. David Barrow takes a long ride to see what they have to offer, and enjoy the magnificent scenery

Route 555 is operated by Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire (SC&NL). The service can trace its origins back to the mighty Ribble Motor Service, when the service operated as far as Carlisle. 2015/16 has been an extremely challenging year for Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire and the communities it serves following the aftermath of Storm Desmond. Its Carlisle depot was flooded and there was extensive damage sustained to a number of roads and bridges that affected the services, particularly in the Lakes with the A591 closure. As a result, Stagecoach operated additional buses to provide shuttle services between Grasmere and Keswick, Pooley Bridge and Penrith.

The new 555 order
For the second time in five years, Stagecoach has introduced new buses on route 555. The latest ones are 12 Alexander-Dennis (ADL) Enviro400 MMCs and represent an investment of £2.5m. They are fitted with Lazzerini seating, covered in E-Leather, total seating capacity is 74. Designed by Ray Stenning of Best Impressions, the livery promotes, both inside and outside the bus, the attractions and landscape of the Lake District. Easy-to-read cove panels on the ceilings highlight the route and the area – and the staircase is adorned with various murals of Lakeland scenes. The vehicles are also fitted with free WiFi and USB charging points.
The easy to read cove panels on both decks fascinated me, and because there was only a few passengers on the first leg of our journey, I took the opportunity to sample both decks.
Eight of the buses are allocated to Kendal depot, and the remaining four are based at Morecambe. The Morecambe examples are in the same livery as the other eight, but without the names of the towns on the route. This is because they will be used on Morecambe/Lancaster local routes during the winter months. In the summer, the Morecambe examples are used primarily on the 555 service which uses the M6 for part of the journey.
All members of the batch are fitted with Euro 6 Cummins engines, and replace a similar number of ADL Enviro400-bodied Scania N230UDs.
Stagecoach, as a whole, has now embraced Euro 6 completely for all its new buses and coaches for 2016 and beyond.

E-Leather covered high-back seats specified throughout. DAVID BARROW

Riding the route
So why did I decide to ride this route? Was it because it travels through some of the most scenic areas of the UK? Was it because it is using the latest environmentally-friendly new buses? Or was it because I fancied a day out by, which is not too far from home? Well the answer is yes to all of those questions – oh, and it was a nice sunny day.
I arrived in Lancaster in plenty of time to catch the 1125hrs departure to Keswick. Lancaster is of course, the county town of Lancashire, with a population of 46,000. Granted city status in 1937, it is famous for its castle and university.
From here I started my journey on the 555. Lancaster bus station is very welcoming. It was re-built in 2001 and it suffered severe flooding in December 2015.
I decided to try the quicker of the two routes – the one which operates via the M6. This goes direct to Kendal and by-passes Bolton-le-Sands, Carnforth and Milnthorpe.
The motorway journey, which is between Lancaster and Keswick, is timed at two hours 20 minutes, whereas the longer journey is timed at two hours 59 minutes. Both routes are in the region of 45 miles.
I boarded fleet no. 10563, which is registered ‘SN16OOH’ ready for the scheduled departure via the M6. The queue of passengers was small – only five got on, and we departed off-stand on time.
We soon reached junction 34 of the M6. At the time of my trip, there was a lot of roadworks in progress here due to the building of the M6 Heysham Link. The new road, which has since opened to traffic, provides a vastly improved connection from Heysham Port to the M6.
We travelled along the motorway for 11 miles – the first part being a steady climb for about a mile. The ride was pleasant,with no loss of speed on this incline. The ride quality overall is a great improvement on previous Enviro400s – with no evidence of rattles or vibrations.
We arrived at Kendal at 1207hrs, just two minutes down. Here, one passenger disembarked and 11 jumped on board. The route via the M6 is scheduled for 40 minutes from Lancaster, as opposed to 74 minutes via Carnforth.
We leave Kendal at 1210hrs and make our way to Windermere. We are now well and truly in the heart of the Lake District.
The area must rank as one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations for both UK and overseas visitors.
According to data supplied by STEAM (Scarborough Tourism Economic Activity Monitor) for the year 2015, there are an average of 23million day visitors. It is also the largest of the 13 National Parks in England and Wales.
It never fails to amaze me that no matter what time of year it is, the Lakes are awash with visitors. It only goes to show just how popular the area is with a wide variety of nationalities.
The 555 is most certainly not a single-deck route, unless you are a local resident making a short journey. I overheard one passenger remark that it needs more seats on the top deck. You can see it in the faces of some passengers when they arrive at the top of the stairs to see the front four seats occupied.
Just before we reached Windermere, we turned off the A591 to call at the village of Staveley. This tiny hamlet has been closed to through traffic since December 2015 when Storm Desmond damaged the bridge, which is not expected to be rebuilt in the near future.
As we reached our stop at Abbey Square, depending on the position of any parked vehicles, the driver can reverse down a side street, but in our case this manoeuvre was not possible and we literally had to perform a three-point-turn in the middle of the road. A similar manoeuvre was waiting to be executed by the 555 bus behind us on its return journey to Lancaster.
Windermere boasts the UK’s largest natural lake, at approximately 11 miles long and one mile at its widest point. It’s a popular calling point for the numerous coach tours that pass through the area.
We arrived at Windermere railway station four minutes late due to a road traffic collision just before we reached the town. Four passengers disembarked and eight boarded – some with luggage, and thanks to the presence of ‘off-bus ticket sellers’ we were on our way in no time at all. We then journeyed onwards to Ambleside, via Troutbeck.
Situated at the northern end of Lake Windermere, Ambleside is the ideal base for the thousands of hikers and cyclists who descend on the Lake District all year round, as well as the many Japanese and American tourists I came across during my short visit. It’s pleasing to see how many of these tourists use the 555 service. A good reliable bus service is of course, essential to the town and its residents.
Having passed the shores of Lakes Windermere, Rydal Water and Thirlmere, the top deck provides a prime vantage point to take in all this magnificent scenery.
After another 15 minutes, we arrived at Grasmere – which is my favourite place on the route. With its narrow, winding streets, plenty of places for refreshments and numerous craft shops, the village is an ideal place to stop – which I did, before embarking on the last leg of my journey to Keswick.
The poet William Wordsworth, who took up residence in Grasmere for 14 years, rightly described it as “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”
On the village green next to the main bus stop, we were treated to some delightful singing by the Ambleside and District Coral Society on a fundraising day. I must say this was my favourite part of the day, a very pleasant short “stop over.”

The 555 connects with SC & NL’s open top service 599 at Windermere. DAVID BARROW
The 555 connects with SC & NL’s open top service 599 at Windermere. DAVID BARROW

Having jumped on a 555, we continued our journey on one of the new buses. We arrived at the final stop of our journey – Keswick – just three minutes down. The market town is situated at the northern end of Derwent Water, and has a population of just under 5,000. It is also home to one of the UK’s oldest working cinemas, the Alhambra. There is no rail link to the town – the line from Penrith having closed in 1972. There have been numerous plans to re-open the line, but the latest estimate put the cost at nearly £25m.
The nearest railway station is at Penrith, some 18 miles away, so a good reliable bus service is essential to the town and its residents. Our 555 service driver stopped away from the small, but adequate, bus station to let our passengers get off. Here, the bus and driver enjoyed a 15-minute layover, before being due back ‘on-stand’ for the 140-minute journey back to Lancaster.

Fares & information
A wide selection of ticket options are available – ranging from a day and family ticket, Park Car & Explore ticket and Boat & Bus ticket. Discounts are also available to bus passengers at hotels, cafes and restaurants, in addition to a variety of leisure activities and museums on production of a valid bus ticket.
It was clear during my trip that two ticketing options were popular with my fellow travellers. I noticed many bought the Lake Windermere bus and boat ticket, which allows unlimited bus travel and a cruise on the famous lake. However, I chose the £10.50 Explorer day ticket as I’m not very good on boats, which is a rover ticket for the area on Stagecoach services.
In terms of information, a informative and easy-to-use 96-page comprehensive bus timetable pocket guide, entitled ‘The Lakes Connection’ is available from Tourist Information Centres and Lancaster Bus Station, as well as over 1,100 other outlets. It can also be obtained via the SC&NL website. I requested mine and received it in the post the next day.
The website is clear, and easy to navigate, with all the information on hand in preparation for one’s journey. Commendably, the same can be said for roadside bus stop information, which is without doubt a model of best practice for others to follow. Every bus stop I encountered boasted clear, up-to-date information.

From the operator
At Keswick, I was met by Michael Sanderson, Commercial Manager for SC&NL who, over a cup of coffee at a tea room next to the bus station, explained to me some facts about the service.
“The 555 is one of our most important routes. It’s a route that is growing, so we can justify the regular investment in new vehicles,” he enthused.
“The Summer season always runs from Easter through to the end of October half-term, but this year’s high summer, part of which has previously been the school holidays, is now extended to the longer University holidays, and that’s when it steps up from being hourly all the way along the route to being half-hourly between Kendal and Keswick – and an additional fast service via the M6. This step up now runs from early July until the end of September, which is a big improvement over previous years.”
He continued: “The route is popular all year round, but more so in the Summer months – that’s why the new vehicles have gone in-service now. The peak vehicle requirement is 12, but during the winter months it’s only seven – the other five will be utilised on other services.”
I then asked him about Storm Desmond in December 2015. “Yes, that did test all our resources,” Michael recalled.
“There was a landslip on the A591 trunk road, close to Dunmail Raise, along the banks of Thirlmere. This meant the road was closed to through traffic for five months. The 555 service linking Kendal to Penrith, via the motorway, was using Gold services X4 and X5 just to get to Keswick. What usually takes 30 minutes, i.e. Grasmere to Keswick, was now taking three hours and three different buses. However, from mid-February Cumbria County Council opened a forest route, but it was only narrow, single-width track.
The double-decker on the 555 terminated at Grasmere, passengers transferred on to two Optare Solos and as passenger numbers increased, two larger Enviro200s were deployed. The A591 finally re-opened to through traffic on the May 11.”
Asked if coaches had been considered in plans for the 555 when the bid for the new vehicles was submitted to the Group, Michael replied: “Not really. You have all the problems with wheelchair accessibility, capacity issues and with this kind of scenery everybody wants to ride on the top deck.”

I thanked Michael for giving up his valuable time to come from Carlisle to speak to me and bid him farewell as I boarded the 1600hrs 555 for my return journey to Lancaster. Overall, I was highly impressed by the 555 and would thoroughly recommend it as a day out in itself.

For details, visit the Stagecoach Cumbrian and North Lancashire webpages at: